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Food for All

BY UMA LELE, MANMOHAN AGARWAL, BRIAN BALDWIN, AND SAMBUDDHA GOSWAMI

April 8, 2022

Our book arose out of several mutually reinforcing concerns: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were unlikely to be achieved by 2030, given the slow rate of decline in poverty and hunger. The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and conflicts, such as those in Yemen, Sudan  and Ethiopia, had already displaced 75 million of the world’s poorest people. Ukraine was a major agricultural exporter. Its conflict has displaced millions more and affected food importing countries. Whereas literature showed convergence among developed and developing countries, we found differentiation among developing regions, with sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia falling behind East and Southeast Asia.

USA played a key role in the establishment of the liberal international order following WW2. In addition to establishing Bretton Woods institutions (particularly IBRD and IDA), USA played a pivotal role in the establishment of FAO, WFP, CGIAR, and IFAD. These organizations placed food security at the center of the global agenda. The international architecture is now far more complex and crowded with emerging countries, private foundations, and multinational corporations. The withdrawal of USA from the Paris Climate Accord during the Trump administration, rejoined by the Biden Administration, showed that even US support for international cooperation cannot be taken for granted. All member countries, including emerging G20 countries, such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa need to be more proactive in supporting a coherent architecture for global cooperation, peace and prosperity.

Two ideas of global governance are significant. First, to avoid free rider problems leading to Ostrom’s tragedy of the commons, collectively designed and enforceable rules are needed to assure good global governance. Second, donors often seek upward accountability from developing countries, but there is also need for downward accountability of donors.

Broad-based agricultural development and productivity growth are central to structural transformation of countries. The experience of 130 developing countries, which we analyzed, showed that domestic savings and investments, as well as internal capacity to form and implement policies, are critical but often insufficient. Countries lagging in structural transformation often also lag in agricultural productivity growth, and have invested little in R&D capacity. Declining global food prices in real terms since the mid-1980s posed an additional challenge. In recent years food prices have become more volatile and have increased since the Ukraine crisis. With substantial underinvestment in agriculture and rural development, lagging countries have also experienced slow demographic transition, absence of a conducive policy environment, and insufficient capacity to plan, implement, monitor, and improve investment projects, leading to slower agricultural productivity growth and food and nutrition insecurity.

Our analysis reveals the increasing complexity of agriculture and rural development, with need for substantially more investment across sectors, including physical infrastructure, education, health, communications, and digital technology. Despite its benefits, integrated rural development often failed in the past. Complexity of rural development led donors to look for simplicity in project design, focusing on immediate impacts and insufficient investment in upstream institution building.

Developing countries need to recognize the centrality of food and agricultural development and related sectors, including education, health, energy, and infrastructure, to their overall national, long-term development strategies. Priority setting with a systems approach poses challenges. Countries need conducive macro policy frameworks that can adapt to the rapidly changing external environment. China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh have done better than others at emphasizing integrated agricultural and rural development.

Financing has been a challenge for international organizations that support such activities, for example, FAO, CGIAR and IFAD. The emergency assistance delivered by WFP has been growing but remains insufficient, given the growing number of emergencies. CGIAR and WFP depend exclusively on voluntary contributions. FAO’s assessed contributions are insufficient to link its activities to its overall strategic direction. IFAD’s latest replenishment shows only marginal growth from previous replenishments. The good news is that IDA has grown considerably. The $95 billion IDA-19 replenishment has pledged 70 percent of future investments in Africa. Yet ex-post evaluation ratings of IDA-funded agricultural projects in Africa over 40 years were lower than those in other regions. Improving performance requires more commitment by recipient countries themselves, and more and predictable investments by donors in the capacity of developing countries to plan, implement, and monitor their own projects for food and nutrition security.

To summarize, our analysis highlights the concerns of reaching the SDGs, compounded by external challenges, such as COVID-19 and climate change. The five key international institutions have evolved internally and in response to external challenges. More adaptation than currently practiced is needed to overcome food security and nutrition challenges. The knowledge should come from the countries themselves and from a growing array of other stakeholders. COP-26 has showed the immense policy and financial implications. Institutions need to be both agile and responsive in strategy and operations, with clearer alignment to work with partners. This means the governance mechanisms need to be equally agile and responsive.


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  1. Josefina Stubbs

    We need to gain a better understanding of the political economy of the agricultural and rural sectors, and how it is shaping decisions on investments ( or lack of), incentives on food importation, and the emergence of a ‘ new agriculture’ (and elite capture of agriculture) in developing and emerging economies. Countries’ policies, incentives and dynamics impose the pace of change. Today, MDB’s influence is at best marginal in influencing core, pro-poor, agriculture and rural development dynamics. We need more work and reflections on this front!
    Thanks to the authors for this new publication!


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